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Expanding Port Infrastructure Along the Texas Gulf Coast

Expanding Port Infrastructure Along the Texas Gulf Coast

By Luke Carothers

Recent supply chain delays and price increases have brought key aspects of our nation’s infrastructure into the forefront.  Among these pieces of infrastructure are our ports.  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, water is the leading mode of transportation for international freight, providing key links between highways, pipelines, and railroads.  One of the most rapidly expanding areas in terms of port infrastructure is the Texas Gulf Coast.  Along the coast in Texas, ports are continually growing–servicing both public port authorities and private companies. 

Recently, the Port of Houston started work on Project 11, which will include a widening and deepening of the Houston Ship Channel.  Beginning in the Gulf and running through Galveston to near downtown Houston, this channel is home to not only port authorities, but some of the largest petrochemical and industrial complexes in the world.  Project 11 will take place over the course of five years, and aims to alleviate some of the congestion the area now faces.  Other ports in the area, such as Freeport and Corpus Cristi, have also started work on similar projects to expand their ship channel.    

In both the public and private sectors, one company has established itself as synonymous with the growth of port infrastructure along the Texas Gulf Coast.  McCarthy Building Companies, a general contractor,  is a nationwide company that works in nearly every state.  Founded in 1864, McCarthy services several different specialty markets, and started working in port infrastructure nearly 25 years ago.  McCarthy’s Marine & Industrial business unit is headquartered in Houston, Texas.  In the current day, McCarthy has an established presence in this sector, having worked with all the major public port authorities in the area and several private petrochemical owners in the Greater Houston market.  

McCarthy’s presence in developing port infrastructure along the Texas Gulf Coast is indicative of both their expertise and the vitality of the area to the nation’s infrastructure.  For example, the Port of Houston has now been expanded to a 25-mile-long complex of nearly 200 private and public terminals.  These expansions support the Port of Houston’s position as the number one port in the United States in terms of total waterborne tonnage, foreign waterborne tonnage, and number of vessels.  McCarthy has been a huge part of the Port of Houston’s growth in importance.  Recently, McCarthy has worked for the Port Houston Authority (PHA) on the Bayport Wharf 6 and Container Yard 3N at Barbours Cut Terminal.  

These two projects will have a significant impact on the Port’s ability to handle high flows of container shipping traffic.  The firs phase of the Bayport facility, where McCarthy is currently working on the Wharf 6 project, was constructed around 20 years ago. According to Fitz O’Donnell, Sr. VP of Operations for McCarthy, these twenty years of operation have seen a gradual build out of the wharf facilities, container storage, and gate complexes.  The Wharf 6 project, which extends the Bayport facility to the west,  broke ground in the Summer of 2021.  According to O’Donnell, the project is nearing halfway completion with its scheduled end date during Summer 2023.  This project involves adding 1,000 linear feet of container crane wharf.  Adjacent to Wharf 5, the scope of this project included dredging, drilled shaft foundation work, earthwork, structural concrete, crane-infrastructure support, and paving.  

The Barbours Cut Terminal, on the other hand, is a much older facility.  First constructed in the 1970s, the facility is currently undergoing a decade-long transformation to modernize the facility, and McCarthy has been a critical part of that.  O’Donnell points out that the need to modernize the facility came when plans to expand the Panama Canal were realized, making cargo ships even bigger.  In turn, this means that facilities have to update infrastructure–such as larger cranes–to unload these ships.  In many cases this results in the need for significant expansion.  When the Barbours Cut facility was constructed in the 70s, the standard rail for the cranes was 50 feet–now, according to O’Donnell, the standard is 100 feet.  Since 2013, McCarthy has completed three projects at the Barbours Cut Terminal.  These projects involved selectively demolishing sections of the wharf, strengthening the existing wharf, and making it wide enough for the ship-to-shore cranes to operate.   

McCarthy’s work is not limited to the Houston area, however, as they are currently working on several projects at other places along the Gulf.  Earlier this year, McCarthy started construction on the Port of Beaumont’s Main Street Terminal 1, which will increase the port’s general cargo handling capacity by more than 15 percent.  The main dock for the Port of Beaumont, the original structure collapsed in 2012.  This means that McCarthy has to first demolish the entire dock–which will be made difficult due to no water visibility.  This demolition process is critical as any remaining portions of the dock could hinder pile driving installation.

However, despite its challenges, this demolition process provides opportunity for a complete redesign of the terminal–placing sustainability and resiliency at the forefront.  This will come to fruition in the form of key building elements such as concrete piles that provide a corrosion-resistant foundation and a final concrete topping slab to be constructed with synthetic concrete reinforcing fibers.  By opting for synthetic concrete reinforcing fibers rather than traditional welded steel wire mesh, the surface will be corrosion-proof, slowing deterioration.  The Main Street Terminal 1 project in Beaumont is scheduled for completion in mid-2024.  

Another rapidly expanding port along the Texas Gulf Coast is Port Freeport, located 60 miles from downtown Houston.  In addition to constructing new facilities and container terminals, Port Freeport is currently also deepening its waterways with the $295 million Freeport Harbor Channel Improvement project.  The Harbor Channel Improvement project will deepen the waterway from its previous depth of 46 feet to 56 feet.  Before dredging could commence on the Harbor Channel Improvement project, levee stabilization had to be completed.  The waterway’s widening and deepening called for the removal of a birm from a levee.  Part of the Freeport Hurricane Flood Protection Project, a stabilization wall had to be constructed before the project began to ensure its integrity.  McCarthy was hired to deliver the Levee Stabilization project, which called for a 3,800-line foot steel combination wall (combi-wall) that crowned Dow Levee Road.  The project was completed in less than three months, finishing before the start of hurricane season.

In 2019, McCarthy was awarded the Velasco Container Terminal Expansion for Port Freeport, Texas, which is the single largest project built by a public port on the Texas Gulf Coast.  This 925-foot extension of the current berth is meant to accommodate post-Panamax gantry cranes and includes the construction of Berth 8.  The scope of McCarthy’s work on this project includes the demolition of the existing concrete relieving platform, excavation, combi-wall bulkhead, new wharf, wharf piling, dredging, slope protection, fenders, electrical, and crane rail installation.  Part of this project includes dredging the berth to 56 feet, which matches the depth of the Freeport Harbor Channel Improvement project.

There are understandable challenges that come with working on such a large project.  It will require approximately 29,200 tons of steel piling, but the challenge is that the piles have extremely tight driving tolerances.  This will require a 20+ foot template to ensure accurate alignment of the pilings.  In addition, slope protection grout mats will be placed between the piles with extreme care being taken to not damage the new piling.  The project is scheduled to be completed later this year.  

The expansion of ports along the Texas Gulf Coast is indicative of a trend in infrastructure investment and expansion.  The size and volume of container shipping over the last few years has resulted in an increasing number of long term expansion projects throughout the region from both private and public entities.  As these projects continue to receive funding and support, companies like McCarthy are poised to serve a critical role in what this infrastructure looks like in the future.

Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at lcarothers@zweiggroup.com.